Martha White

Personally, Thanksgiving is the only holiday I find significant. It is light on commercialism and heavy on gratitude, while at the same time allowing for reflection and thoughts about those less fortunate. That is why, for years, my daughter (as a youth) and I would spend part of that day working at a soup kitchen or delivering meals to homes.

Chelsey is 39 now, but this Thanksgiving, like so many prior, will be spent with her. She lives in Saratoga Springs with her husband and two kids. No soup kitchens this year, but we all have a lot to be thankful for.

So does Martha White, 34, of Seneca Falls, even though she lives close to the poverty line and survives on Social Security disability payments and food stamps, while receiving Medicare and Medicaid. Her current situation is a fraction of how bad life once was for her — and could have been now.

In 2010, she was a typical 22-year-old, a few years removed from her Waterloo High School graduation. She had jobs as a cashier and deli worker at P&C (now Tops).

On June 4, 2010, her life took a drastic turn. She started to feel sick, got a massive headache, and her legs started to tingle. She ended up in the Auburn Hospital Emergency Room, but a spinal tap, X-rays, and other tests came back negative, so she went home.

On June 12, her legs gave out from under her, and she had trouble standing up. Back to the ER she went. She said doctors there felt “it was all in her head” and sent her home with some anxiety meds.

By the next day Martha thought she was dying. She was taken by ambulance back to the hospital, where her parents demanded a neurologist check her out. When he arrived in her room he asked Martha to close her eyes as he pin-pricked parts of her body. She had no feeling from her toes up — until he reached her stomach. He knew right away she had Guillain-Barré syndrome.

GBS is a rare, autoimmune disorder in which a person’s immune system damages the nerves, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, GBS affects about 3,000 people in the United States.

It often develops after a respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infection. The nerves are unable to send signals properly, the muscles lose their ability to respond to the commands of the brain, and the brain receives fewer sensory signals from the rest of the body. The result is the inability to feel heat, pain, and other sensations.

Martha was transferred to Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse. She was intubated, and had a feeding tube and all sorts of intravenous lines inserted (top inset photo). Her condition was not improving, so, for her safety and well being, she was put in a medically induced coma for 15 days (bottom inset photo). When she was taken out of the coma she was paralyzed from the neck down and couldn’t speak.

While in the hospital she contracted pneumonia, which proved to be a major setback.

The future prognosis seemed bleak. Hospital staff were informing her parents to look for a nursing home that could provide for her. A ventilator seemed likely.

However, after she survived the pneumonia scare, things started to very slowly improve. Physical and occupational therapy were helping. After three months at Upstate she was able to walk out with the assistance of a walker. She had regained her speech and some movement in her arms and legs.

Outpatient therapy was started — and helped immensely.

Twelve years later she still gets some muscle spasms and tremors, but on the flip side, she can actually run and stand on her tiptoes.

Even though Martha struggles with her finances, and life can be very difficult at times, readers likely can see how she would be thankful for the life she has now compared to what many, including medical professionals, thought it might be.

Winston Churchill may have said it best: “You can have all the riches and success in the world, but if you don’t have your health, you have nothing.”

• • •

The powers that be at the Finger Lakes Times graciously held a turkey raffle for employees; winners were drawn on Fridays. I won a frozen turkey (from Morgan’s Grocery in Penn Yan) on the final day of the drawings last week. I want to give loyal readers of this column the opportunity to win my bird for themselves, or someone they know. A loyal reader would be anyone who has made it this far into this week’s piece on Martha! Because time is of the essence, please email me (soon) at and provide a name and phone number. I will draw a name and call a winner around 10 a.m. Wednesday. If no one answers, it will be on to the next name. I will be happy to deliver the bird in person.

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